The secret to Kyler Murray's success might be … chess?

TEMPE, Ariz. — Michael Staten saw it before anyone else did.

How Kyler Murray outthought and outmaneuvered his opponents. How Murray processed information, quickly solving problems. How he won gracefully and humbly and led by example. How he became popular despite being soft-spoken.

And Staten saw Murray win. A lot. But not on the football field. Not on the baseball diamond either.

No, Staten witnessed all of these traits while Murray sat behind a chessboard.

Years before Murray was a Texas high school football and baseball legend, before he was a Heisman winner at Oklahoma, before he was a first-round pick of the Oakland A’s and the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft, before he was the face of the Arizona Cardinals — who on Thursday face the unbeaten San Francisco 49ers (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox/NFL Network) — Staten recruited him to the chess club at Degan Elementary School in Lewisville, Texas.

And since leaving Degan 12 years ago, Murray’s passion for chess has remained a quiet part of who he is. It has shaped his strategy and confidence on the field, while sharpening his mind off it.

Murray was in fourth grade when Staten, a science teacher at Degan, introduced him to chess.

By then, the young prodigy was already winning championships in youth football and baseball while dominating his uncles in Scrabble and Connect 4. Murray’s mom, Missy, used board games in Kyler’s childhood as a way of teaching her son how to use his head critically and strategically.

Staten had gotten to know Murray during recess football games on the playground. The teacher always played quarterback and assigned the teams, and Murray’s side often dominated. But on the days Murray’s team didn’t win, he would return to class an unhappy 10-year-old.

One day, Staten, the chess club adviser, invited Murray and a couple of his friends, including current Denver Broncos practice squad wide receiver Trinity Benson, to join the club.

“The chess club that I had wasn’t perceived as a nerdy thing or just for the intellectuals,” said Staten, who became Murray’s home room and science teacher in fifth grade. “It was just a popular thing among everybody. We had all types of people in there, from students who had a hard time learning and doing well, to students who were straight A’s and gifted and talented, to the athletic kids.

“It was a real good mixture of everyone.”

From 3 to 3:45 p.m. on Thursdays in the Degan library, Murray and his friends joined fellow chess club members (about 110 total) in commanding pawns, rooks and bishops. Benson said he and Murray fell in love with chess right away and began toppling their classmates before long.

Murray had never played chess before joining but quickly began winning the weekly tournaments. Games were set up similarly to pickup basketball — winner stayed, loser took a walk. Murray would sit at his little elementary school desk and dismiss his opponents one by one.

“I took pride in it, for sure, just because I take pride in everything I do,” Murray said.

“Most athletes probably aren’t going to be that good at chess, so we were coming in, beating the guys that you would call — I don’t call them nerds, but the guys that are supposed to be smarter than us. So it was kind of funny to see us go to the chess club and run it.”

Murray also knew how to keep his composure during a match. He never walked away from a game — a rarity for elementary school players, according to Staten — or swept the board clean of the pieces in frustration.

Staten also remembered that Murray was never one to talk smack or gloat about his wins.

“I don’t remember him ever hurting someone’s feelings,” Staten said. “They would lose to him, but they still came away feeling good about it. … He was very kind to his opponents, treated them with respect, fairness.”

Turns out, Murray bottled up his trash talk for his friendly rival, Benson. The two were elite local athletes and damn good at chess too, so Murray had plenty of fodder for Thursday afternoons when they sat down across from each other at the chessboard.

“It was friendly, but he always bragged, just like I would if I beat him,” Benson said.

Every year, the club held tournaments for each grade level: single-elimination affairs with seeding to ensure that the best players wouldn’t face one another in the early rounds. In fourth grade, his first year playing, Murray was victorious. In fifth grade, he coasted through the tournament and found Benson awaiting him in the final. He dispatched his friend as well, becoming the Degan Elementary chess champion, a title he still holds over Benson’s head.

“He was always thinking four or five moves ahead,” Benson said. “So you kind of want to stay ahead of him. He also had a good poker face, so don’t let him bluff you.

“He was a hell of a chess player.”

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